It seems that this is my weekend for fraught family dramas. I watched Ilo Ilo today, the debut feature-length film by Singaporean director Anthony Chen, which chronicles the relationship of the Lim family and their new maid, Terry.
Because it recently won the Camera d’Or at Cannes and got positive press, I was very curious to see it, and judge if it lived up to the hype. Let me just say it: If you haven’t seen it, you should make it a point to go watch the movie.
I was brought up partly by a succession of yayas (nanny in Filipino) because both my parents worked, so I could totally relate to this movie, as I imagine a lot of my friends could. Having a nanny was just part and parcel of my childhood, so I never really thought about how it must have been like for them to live with another family, taking care of other people’s kids, while their own had to make do without. I guess, because the yayas were treated as part of the family. Sure, they cleaned and cooked and generally looked out for us, but, they were considered family. They sat at table during meals, were valued by both my parents and us kids. My brothers and I all grew up to be fairly well-behaved and I partly attribute that to the attention our yayas gave us — we never lacked for love, I guess. They were surrogate parents and could mete out punishments — sanctioned by my parents, in fact — and hugs as they saw fit. (I remember my mom instructing our yayas to spank us if we got out of hand, so we never did… much.) So I could relate to the relationship that eventually formed between Terry and her young charge.
Set in Singapore during the late 90s, at the height of the Asian Financial Crisis, Ilo Ilo tells the story of the middle-class Lim family, who hires a Filipina maid, Teresa (“Just call me Terry, ma’am”) to take care of their bratty kid, Jiale. Like a lot of workers from Third World countries, Terry came to Singapore in search of a better life and better pay, leaving behind a son in her hometown. Her presence in the Lim household adds to the tension within the family. Mom Hwee Leng is pregnant and works long hours as a secretary in a shipping firm, while Teck, the dad has a sales job that he eventually loses, ending up as a night watchman at a factory. Only son, Jiale is a holy terror, getting into trouble at school and being an all-around brat, the only way he could really react to the parental tension and worry that was pervading his home. Eventually, the kid and the nanny form a special bond as Terry starts becoming an unofficial member of the family.
It’s a simple story, one that I imagine is replicated in households all over Singapore, and will definitely strike a chord with most people, especially given the issues about domestic helpers here: Days off, the employer keeping the maid’s passport to ensure she won’t run away (which as far as I know should not be done), the maid moonlighting on her off days are all concerns that have been raised here. There were also nods to current events: The young son gets the small maid to carry his heavy school bag (which echoed a recent controversial image of a young National Serviceman getting his much smaller maid to carry his heavy military pack) and a suicide who leaped off an HDB (apartment) building (echoing reports of maids jumping or accidentally falling to their deaths).
In the end though, politics takes a backseat in this story. What matters are the relationships within the family, in all their messy glory: Between the mom and the dad, who bicker all the time because of financial worries; the parents and the son, who are always at loggerheads, because of the tensions at work and at home; the maid and the mom, who can’t help feeling jealous about the growing bond between her child and the nanny, even as she feels relief at having someone do the chores; and finally, the kid and the nanny, who start out as adversaries (the kid attempts to pin a shoplifting charge on the maid at one point) and ends up understanding, even caring for one another. The scene at the airport when Terry is about to leave for the Philippines is particularly touching. Terry tells her young charge to be more responsible and to be good, her way of showing she cared. Jiale, meanwhile, as all boys his age, attempts not to cry and as his nanny turns to go, cuts off a piece of her hair to remember her by (a running joke throughout the movie). I’ve witnessed similar scenes like this at the airport — of crying charges saying goodbye to their nannies. In one instance at the check-in queue, the nanny was attempting to check in her luggage while her charge, a little girl was crying her head off as she frantically clutched at her nanny’s leg. When I asked the Filipina maid later, my curiosity getting the better of me, if she was going home for good and was that why the kid was distraught, she cheerfully told me she was just going home for vacation, as she hadn’t gone home for two years! The kid was crying because she thought her nanny wasn’t coming back, despite assurances to the contrary.
A simple and effective script, partly based on Anthony Chen’s own relationship with his childhood nanny, nuanced acting — props go to the four leads for the understated and excellent acting — and assured direction by Chen combined to make this a movie that will pull at your heartstrings. Particularly effective is the kid who plays Jiale. I challenge anyone who watches this movie not to be affected when, faced with losing his nanny, the kid bets on the lottery and desperately prays to win it, just so the family would have enough money for Terry to stay. His reaction when he didn’t win was heart-wrenching.
The movie ended on a somewhat hopefully ambiguous note. In the end, the family had to let Terry go back to the Philippines. Jiale must grow up, as his mom gives birth.
What of Terry? Given Philippine reality, she might have gone back to being a maid abroad for another family in order to earn enough to support her family in Iloilo. I would like to imagine her though going home to a better life, which is what all overseas Filipino workers dream of doing.
Screenplay and Direction: Anthony Chen
Koh Jia Ler as Jiale
Angeli Bayani as Teresa
Tian Wen Chen as Teck (the father)
Yann Yann Yeo as Hwee Leng (the mother)
Ilo Ilo is still showing at Singaporean cinemas as of this writing. Go watch it!